The Cognitive Dissonance of Ian Happ, Leadoff Man

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up”

Ian Happ is the new Cubs leadoff hitter; Ian Happ strikes out all the time.

Fourteen times in his first 23 plate appearances of 2018, or 60.1% of the time, to be exact. So maybe not all the time, but close. Happ is the first Cub ever to go down swinging multiple times in each of his first four games of a season. His 32.3 percent strikeout rate for his career is ninth-worst among the 225 hitters with at least 400 plate appearances since 2016. His 46.15 swinging strike rate this year is fifth-worst of 229 hitters who have seen 50 pitches.

Yet Happ’s name continues to occupy the top line of Joe Maddon’s varicolored, marginalia-laced riddle of a lineup card. Even further, on Thursday, Happ – who had ceded leadoff duties to Albert Almora in the two starts against lefties – was given further endorsement by Maddon, setting the table against Brewers lefty Brent Suter.

With Happ seemingly entrenched in the one spot in the order, and with the memories of Kyle Schwarber’s epic failure as a leadoff hitter fresh in the minds of Cubs fans everywhere, it’s worth asking: Can a hitter who strikes out as much as Happ be an effective leadoff hitter?

Well, it hasn’t happened before. Among players with at least 60 starts batting first in the lineup, the players who struck out most frequently were Adolfo Phillips (Phillies, 1966) and Joc Pederson (Dodgers, 2015), both of whom struck out once every 2.9 at-bats. Happ, during his brief MLB tenure, has struck out once every 2.74 at-bats. While he possesses a bit of speed, he’s no speed demon. While his on-base skills are above average, they’re only slightly so.

But in 2018, none of that disqualifies him from the role. This is an era when the very notion of what makes a good leadoff hitter is transforming before our eyes, where for every Ender Inciarte there is a Eric Thames manning the top of the lineup, and for every Cesar Hernandez there is a Chris Davis doing his best to keep whatever company makes those “K” signs in business. Clearly, managers are shifting away from the “traditional” high on-base, high-speed, low-power leadoff hitter.

So, while it’s fair to say that Happ is far from a prototypical leadoff hitter, in 2018, these two ideas – Ian Happ is the Cubs’ new leadoff hitter; Ian Happ strikes out all the time – are not mutually exclusive.

Even so, it’s hard to display what Fitzgerald called “first-rate intelligence” when you’re a fan of a team playing as poorly as the 2018 Cubs. It takes a certain amount of cognitive dissonance to hold these two opposed ideas in one’s head. To wonder whether Happ’s strikeouts are having a trickle-down effect on the rest of the lineup in some murky, unquantifiable way. To start calling for something, anything to be done to shake things up at the top of the order. To be patient amid the swirling hot-takery and snap judgments that come with being a baseball fan in the age of Twitter.

All of this is amplified, of course, when the strikeouts in question take place during the heightened expectations of the beginning of the season, when the hitter in question is new to the role, when the team in question barely managed to split a series with a glorified Triple-A team and has been shut out in two consecutive games.

While all the strikeout numbers are true, and while some of his at-bats have been downright ugly, here’s another Happ-related stat that is worth noting: in his six games from September 14th to September 20th of last year, Happ struck out 63.2% of the time (12 times in 19 PA); from that point forward, he struck out just 17.9% of the time to close out the regular season (5 times in 28 PA), all while slashing .318/.429/.727. As it turns out, young hitters can be inconsistent from time to time.

There’s little debate that, outside of Happ’s internet-breaking moonshot on the first pitch of the season off an ill-placed Jose Urena fastball, Happ’s first five games as leadoff man for the Cubs has been an unmitigated disaster. The “You Go, We Go” of the Dexter Fowler Era has become “You Go Down Swinging, We Go Down Swinging,” with the Cubs infamously setting the record for fastest team to 50 strikeouts (although, come on – you’d think with Twitter now being 280 characters, a few people might have used those extra characters to mention the important little detail that the Cubs played an additional nine innings than teams typically do in their first five games). But we’re six games into the new season, let’s try something.

Let’s not freak out about Ian Happ, leadoff hitter.

Recently, Joe Maddon—someone of unquestionably first-rate intelligence—said of Happ, “You know he strikes out, he struck out a lot last year. That’s part of his gig. But he’ll figure it out and get away from that.” Despite Happ’s golden sombrero on Thursday, one has the impression that Maddon feels the exact same way Friday morning. Cognitive dissonance.

Ian Happ strikes out all the time; Ian Happ is the new Cubs leadoff hitter.

Lead photo courtesy Steve Mitchell—USA Today Sports


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